Our experts explain how going sugar-free can change your life for the better
Sugar is public enemy number one in the UK, as many doctors and scientists are convinced that it may be a bigger culprit in the obesity epidemic than fat. Dr Sally Norton, NHS weight loss consultant surgeon, explains why. “The energy boost that we get from sugar is quickly followed by a slump as the rapid rise in blood sugar us counteracted by insulin in the body. This causes a sudden drop in blood sugar which then has us reaching for more to create that energy high again. So we end up eating more and this is contributing to tooth decay and dental pain in around one third of adults and children.”
Unfortunately, as much as we enjoy everything from supermarket mini doughnuts to a classic homemade Victoria sponge, our sweet tooth is setting us up for trouble. “More and more evidence is linking a high-sugar intake to problems like heart disease, some forms of cancer, liver disease and even Alzheimer’s disease or dementia,” says Dr Norton. “Reducing our sugar intake in any way will help us to gradually wean ourselves off the sweet stuff and reduce our cravings, breaking that addictive cycle so it will be easier to ditch sugar in the long run,” she adds. “It’s so important that three years ago the World Health Organisation recommended that we eat no more than six teaspoons (24g) of sugar a day, hidden sugars included. This includes all sugar – honey, fruit sugar and maple syrup – apart from the sugar that naturally occurs in milk or whole fruit and vegetables.”
If you are able to go completely cold turkey, rest assured that it doesn’t take too long for the body to readjust to being sugar-free and those cravings will diminish so that you will soon notice the improvements in your health, mood and weight. A good rule of thumb is that it takes around two months to normalise a new habit, so take it one day at a time.
As well as contributing to obesity, tooth decay and type 2 diabetes, sugar can also affect our good looks. GP Dr Paul Stillman explains, “People with diabetes and non-diabetic people with blood sugar at the high end of the healthy range can look older than people with lower blood sugar.” Research suggests that when protein or fat combines with sugar in the bloodstream, a compound is created that can cause wrinkles. And it is also worth considering how sugar can impact our mood. “When sugar (and other carbohydrates) are consumed there is an increase in insulin production. Insulin is associated with stress hormones such as cortisol which can affect mood,” says Dr Stillman. Carbohydrate foods that are broken down quickly by the body and cause a rapid increase in our blood sugar (glucose) level have a high GI (glycaemic index) rating. “Sugar, sugary foods and sugary drinks have a high GI as do white bread, white rice and potatoes. The amount of food as well as the rest of the food in the meal is also important – so adding a teaspoon of sugar to a bowl of plain porridge oats (which has a low GI) does not make a high GI meal. A high GI diet is a risk factor for depression.”
The question of how we balance our love of the occasional treat and meals containing sugar, whilst lowering our intake is a challenge for most of us. “Part of the answer lies in sugar swapping. If you pop sugar in your coffee, swap to a low-calorie sweetener. Independent studies have confirmed that low-calorie sweeteners, such as Hermesetas, have an important rule to play in helping with sugar reduction, promoting weight management, good dental health and optimal blood sugar control,” says Dr Stillman. A study in 2014 revealed that swapping sugar for a low-calorie sweetener reduced body weight, body mass index, body fat and waist circumference. “Sweeteners can have a major impact on dental health by removing one of the causes of tooth decay, fermentable carbohydrates, which promote bacterial activity and acid production in the mouth,” he adds. “Sweeteners work because they can’t be broken down by oral bacteria, so therefore no acid is created.”
In 2011, the European Food Standard Agency concluded that that there was enough scientific evidence to support claims that when sweeteners were used instead of sugar there was a lower rise in blood sugar levels after meals. However, the agency’s experts could not find a clear cause-and-effect relationship to back up claims that sweeteners helped to maintain a normal blood sugar level and a healthy body weight.
Avoid added sugars in hot and cold drinks, desserts or bags of sweets and chocolate
Check the labels of processed foods to find out how many hidden grammes they contain
Ditch the fizzy drinks which can contain nine teaspoons or more
Don’t forget fruit juice. Even a 200ml glass of orange juice contains five teaspoons – and some smoothies can contain many more
Watch out for breakfast cereal. Besides the chocolate-filled options even the granola-type dried fruit cereals can contain high sugar levels
Be careful in coffee shops. That latte and a muffin can pack a hefty sugar and calorie count
Remember that honey and fruit juice count towards your 24g or six teaspoon a day limit. If we slowly reduce our need for sweetness, we can cut our intake without really noticing